17 April 2014

A 'bracelet' of Mr. Pitt's hair

On October 17, 1821, at Farnham Castle, John Pitt, the Second Earl of Chatham - and by then William Pitt's only surviving family member - bequeathed a 'bracelet' of Pitt's hair to Mrs. Pretyman-Tomline. It was given to her as a 'keepsake,' it having been commonly worn by Lady Chatham. Presumably the Lady Chatham Mrs. Tomline refers to was Pitt's mother Lady Hester, Countess of Chatham (1720-1803). 

Fig. 1: The provenance note for the bracelet/necklace in Mrs. Tomline's handwriting
The whereabouts of this curious artefact between 1803 and 1821 is not clearly known, however it is possible that it was in the possession of John Pitt, the 2nd Lord Chatham, after his mother's death in 1803, and potentially worn by John's wife Mary, the 2nd Countess of Chatham. Sadly, Lady Mary Chatham had died in May 1821, so perhaps John felt as though Mrs. Elizabeth Pretyman-Tomline would like to have it. It is not possible to know if this is the case, but it clearly came into Mrs. Tomline's possession from October 1821 onwards. 

Fig. 2: A 'bracelet' made out of William Pitt the younger's hair
This strange piece of jewellery is described by Mrs. Tomline as a 'bracelet,' however as you can see from the image of the artefact above, it measures nearly 12 inches (a foot) long. It is more like a necklace, although it could also have been folded around the wrist several times to create a bracelet. The hair colour perfectly matches the lock of Pitt's hair taken at his death in January 1806 which is also located in the Pretyman MSS of Ipswich Record Office. Therefore, it is assumed to be made entirely from interweaved strands of Pitt's fine light brown hair (Source: HA 119: 6387/2).

Fig. 3: A close-up image of the hair bracelet
Although it can definitely be argued by modern observers that this is a piece of morbid jewellery, it should also be remembered that at the beginning of the 19th century, relatives and friends of the deceased did not have the luxury of photographs, videos, and other 21st century mementos of their loved ones. Due to the resilient nature of hair, many people during the 19th century (and before) kept memento mori and items of mourning jewellery. It was, in fact, all they had left. 


Ipswich Record Office, Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 6387/2. A 'bracelet' made of William Pitt the younger's hair. 

Image Credits:

Fig. 1: Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 6387/2. A provenance note in Mrs. Tomline's handwriting.

Fig. 2: Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 6387/2. A 'bracelet' made out of William Pitt's hair.

Fig. 3: Pretyman MSS: HA 119: 6387/2. A close-up image of the hair bracelet.


  1. Weird! Not how I imagined it at all. As you say, it's more like a necklace - which, if possible, is even creepier than a bracelet! It can't have been made as mourning jewellery, though, at least not if it belonged to his mother. I just wonder if Mrs Tomline did in fact mean Mary - Mary, after all, was the Lady Chatham in her life, not Hester. Definitely a puzzle!

  2. Well, it's quite ambiguous. It could have been either to be honest. Lady Hester Chatham was fond of her son, so it could have been made much earlier, obviously not as mourning jewellery but as something of him to keep close to her. It's impossible to say. Of course, Lady Mary Chatham may also have worn it, or maybe it was just in her and the 2nd Lord Chatham's possession for all that time.

    1. It is ambiguous and I do suspect it might have been Mary for the reasons Therese mentioned-- also Mary had literally just died in 1821. If she did wear it though... ?!?!?!? well, I guess it supports my theory that she and William were friends!

  3. While these are usually called Memento Mori, the truth is that they were not always, or usually, done after or for a death. These were pieces of love and remembrance. Think of mothers who keep the first cutting of hair from their children. Also, lovers gave locks to one another as well. Think of the scene from Sense and Sensibility. Sometimes the locks were framed without being made into anything, or even placed in a locket. Other times, they were made into jewelry or pictures - called hair wreaths. I did extensive research on this type of work. It actually started around the eleventh century, but most of the artifacts that are still around are from the later nineteenth century.

    1. Thank you for your knowledgable comment, Sassy Countess! That's absolutely right. Lady Chatham (William Pitt's mother) died three years prior to William, and she was very devoted to her son, so I imagine her wearing this piece of hair jewellery as a love token. :) William and his mother were always very close.